During WWII, if an aircraft could achieve a single kill on a mission, it was considered a success. Similarly, if an aircraft could destroy a single ground target, it was considered a hugely successful mission. Now, however, we expect our strike aircraft to destroy multiple ground targets per mission. It makes no sense to send out (risk) an expensive aircraft loaded with the latest technology and merely hope for a single target to be destroyed. That’s too much risk for too little return. In addition, we simply don’t have sufficient numbers of aircraft to accept single target missions. The wisdom of that trend is debatable but the fact of the matter is not.
Though it hasn’t really been doctrinally stated yet, presumably, we’re going to expect our fighters to do the same. We have to, given the ever decreasing numbers of aircraft and their corresponding increase in cost and complexity. An F-22 that goes out and achieves a single kill is going to represent a lot of cost, effort, and risk for a meager return. From the enemy’s perspective, tying up an F-22 trying to achieve a single kill, especially if it’s against a lesser aircraft, is almost a win for the enemy.
In order to achieve multiple kills, a fighter will need multiple missiles, of course. Further, given the increasingly sophisticated stealth, countermeasures, and electronic warfare support that potential enemies can muster, our kill probabilities for a single missile shot are going to be poor, especially as our stealth fighters encounter more and more enemy stealth fighters. One could envision future aerial stealth fights where several missiles are required to achieve a single kill.
Note: I said it before, if two stealth fighters meet, it will almost become a WWI eyeballs fight ! It kind of makes you wonder about the wisdom of not providing the F-35C with a gun. But, I digress …
So, there you have it. Stealth fighters, operating in a sophisticated countermeasures and ECM environment, will be forced to expend many missiles to achieve a kill. What does that mean for aircraft design? It means that we need to design aircraft that can carry many more missiles than our current fighters. For their internal loadouts, which is the condition that counts because we’re not going to be fighting peer aircraft in a non-stealthy configuration, our frontline aircraft carry these loadouts:
F-22 6 AMRAAM / 2 Sidewinder
F-35 4 AMRAAM
For the F-22, 8 missiles is not a lot for the conditions and scenario described above. Worse, the F-35 has only 4 missiles. This is going to come to be recognized as a severe design flaw. The F-35 may be adequately equipped to go up against earlier generations of aircraft but will come up short against peers.
Manufacturer’s claims aside, air-to-air missile performance is, historically, pretty poor even before factoring in stealth, modern countermeasures, ECM, etc. An F-35, with 4 missiles, will be lucky to get a single kill and may well run out of missiles before the fight is over!
We need to design in a much greater missile capacity especially if we’re going to continue to shrink our air wings.
We’ve often discussed how the military has fallen into the bad habit of designing weapons and systems for peacetime applications and low intensity, low threat scenarios. We need to begin realizing that the rest of the world is gearing up for serious, high end combat and start adjusting our thinking. Yes, there are many low end tasks to be accomplished but the measure of a military force is the ability to conduct high end combat. Developmentally, we’ve been idling for the last couple of decades. We need to get back in the fight.
Note that I am not an aerial combat expert (and neither are you!). The scenario and conclusion I’ve presented seems logical but may be entirely wrong. I would hope the military has tested peer aerial combat in an ECM and countermeasures environment. In other words, I hope they’ve tested F-22s against F-22s and drawn some valid conclusions about missile effectiveness and usage rates. Sadly, I doubt that they have. While the results would, undoubtedly, be classified, nothing I’ve ever read even hints at such testing having taken place.
I offer this post as food for thought.